Just when I think I've seen everything ... along comes Neil LaBute and his two-character play The Mercy Seat, at Off the Wall Productions. To me, LaBute has always been a bus-and-truck David Mamet. Both men write plays taking place in a hermetically sealed universe with no bit of real life sneaking in. Both love to write about all the changes women put men through. And both get a lot of adolescent glee shocking an audience with naughty words and deeds.
Mamet, at least, has the ability to string together his words in a singular, and amazingly theatrical, manner. LaBute is like a guy who repeats an offensive joke, and when you complain says he was just repeating it, not making it up.
But even knowing all that, I still wasn't ready for The Mercy Seat.
Abby is a mid-level executive having an affair with her married underling, Ben. The possibility arises that maybe they'll be able to run away together, and so they discuss it. And discuss it. And discuss it.
Since it's LaBute, neither character is what you'd call enjoyable. They hate each other, they hate themselves, they hate the world ... they just hate. And for 95 non-stop minutes they fight, scream, bicker, tease, taunt and torment each other. The conversation goes absolutely nowhere, and after 20 minutes they're simply rehashing the same emotional ground using different words. If you were out to dinner and this couple sat next to you, you'd jam a fork in your eye to get away from them.
But that's still not what makes this one of the world's most ridiculous plays. The Mercy Seat, you see, is set in New York City ... on Sept. 12, 2001. Ben's family thinks he might have died in the disaster, so maybe the two of them can flee the city and become new people. Thus, while lower Manhattan is still smoldering, these two idiots are holed up in Abby's apartment arguing about who loves whom.
I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, what you'd call a patriotic man, so my complaint isn't that LaBute has cheapened the tragedy (which he has). My complaint is that he can't possibly imagine that these two puny, unpleasant people hold even 1/100th of the dramatic interest compared to the stories going on outside. If it was LaBute's desire to upstage 9/11, he needed something stronger than unfunny characters expelled from a Ray Cooney farce.
Paul A. Shaw has designed a very attractive set and Robyne Parrish directs in a nicely understated manner. Michael E. Moats and Adrienne Wehr do what they can with these horrifying roles, although they're hampered by the lack of any onstage chemistry.
In his program note for the play, LaBute writes: "I have no idea why I wrote this play. Really, I don't."
That makes two of us, bub.
The Mercy Seat continues through March 20. Off the Wall Productions, 147 N. Main St., Washington, Pa. 412-394-3353 or www.insideoffthewall.com